I am going to tell you of things that happened back in 1960 or 1961, when I was still a little girl, no more than 12 years old. I was living with my family in Moşilor Street, in one of those queer houses, with the second floor protruding a little, with two very thin columns framing the entrance door, and all kinds of grotesque plaster-cast masks hanging everywhere. Still higher, the balcony overhang the entrance and at its base was a draining pipe jutting forth, just as the tap of the old soda bottle, from the open beak of a metal vulture. The balcony was very little, but in the summer it became my playground, my almost permanent residence. There I would bounce a big ball striped with orange, sky-blue and purple red, or I would stare for minutes on end among the ivy-clad lattices at the head of the vulture, whose eyes, beak and bulging nostrils as well as his each and every flake of the feathers covering his head were minutely chiseled in the ruddy metal. When, after hours and hours of doll-lulling and singing to myself in full sunlight, I got indoors - my eyelids still charged with the glittering reflexes of the ivy - the rooms would seem as bleak as tombs. After dinner I'd get out again, to look at the stars. I don't know why it seemed to me that there used to be more stars in the sky then, more than may ever be seen now. Also, there were more eclipses, almost every week there used to be one, which we could stare at through the darkened shards smoked on purpose, well in advance. Can you remember, too? But, no, you were a tiny little boy at the time…Then there used to be higher snows, too, and, that year, in the summer, there suddenly appeared in the sky a comet trailing behind it six tails gradually fading out in the ether. I was thirstily gazing at it motionless up there, a faintly white spot among the yellow twinkling stars, myriad-pointed. Echoes would come from the street, which was then cobbled and bordered by houses just like ours, painted in all sorts of pink and russet hues, with a calcio vecchio finishing and the plaster surfaces worn off, with the windows covered by dusty blinds - they were sweet echoes of the songs usually heard at that time, songs that make an idiotic nostalgia well forth in my chest even to this day: "The moon's now coming through the window/ Right into our tiny room…" If I climbed into the attic and looked through the sky-light (actually a kind of groin guarded by another two representative members of that gorgon people off the Moşilor Street, one of them having been left with only one arm: it could extend to the stars only an iron thump which had supported the stuccowork) I could make out over the surrounding roofs the flickering lights of the Bucharest advertising boards, red and green and intense lights, coming on then off at regular intervals. There was one particular board the color of sapphire placed on top of a downtown block of flats that no longer exists. Directly it was off I closed my eyes too, tightly, and counted to eleven. When I opened them I had to see, that very moment, the advertising image already lighting up. It would place on the shiny face of my cardboard-headed doll a sky-blue shade of light which would then come off to leave room for some red shades then some green stripes and blots. I would remain in the attic following the black contours of the city until I heard my father stamping on the staircase. He would come up monster-like, a huge red fleshed statue filling up the attic door. I used to be terribly scared of him, though he never thrashed me, on the contrary, he would lift me up in his arms and approached with me the little round window. A really big head, a smaller head and an even smaller one (the cardboard head complete with plaits made of tan thread, Zizi, my doll's head - named after Zizi Şerban, the pop singer I loved to hear in the loudspeaker) three heads, six round eyes crowding to watch the stars. Then we would descend into our dungeons. I would only very, very rarely leave the house. I had no girls as my playmates and my parents lived a secluded life. My mother, poor soul, only left to do the shopping, and my father went away only to his mysterious job, which was the source for our in-coming money. When they decided to take me for a walk I was happy. I'll never forget the day when I went with my dad to the Children's PleasureTown, in the Nation Square, I was four or five at the time. The pleasure town seemed to me immense. In its middle stood a sky-high fir-tree, decorated with colored bulbs from top to bottom, decked out with wreaths in all colors, big cardboard boxes of presents wrapped in golden, crimson and blue tinfoil, with globes the size of a man's head and gold thread as thick as the arm. On the tree top shone a red, five-pointed star that managed to make red all the snow in Bucharest with its light. On the alleys' sides stood crooked mirrors and people about three-meter high made of artificial snow, in whose chests, lo! there opened shop windows with complicated machineries behind them. Everywhere, twisted candy was sold and bought and lemonade in opaque bottles that came in finely rounded shapes. There were big boxes displaying bizarre many-colored sugar candy of different shapes wrapped in cellophane paper; ginger bread Santas and other, true Santas, who gathered the children in several groups to tell them fairytales. Passing through the labyrinth you couldn't get lost because each panel bore on it an arrow that indicated the right way. A big, very long ramshackle, painted stridently, housed in it the Goliath whale which we managed to see, too, after squeezing inside the crowd: it was a never-ending cylinder, violet-blue, that appeared to be made of painted plaster, with huge fish-like fins, and bushy whalebones stuck in the mouth. We also called whalebones the flexible, narrow plastic blades that father would wear in his stiff shirt collar. Gypsies used to sell them on street corners. But the most beautiful thing in the Children's PleasureTown, apart from the fir-tree, seemed to me the rocket Vostok, life-size, to whose top you could climb as if in a tower. Up there, in a cockpit, you could see the little bitches Strelka and Belka, made of linen and curly wool. But you had to go down the other side immediately, for there came more and more other children waiting their turn to see the little bitches kept tight in their complicated harness fastened with tens of buckles. Father was telling me that another little bitch, Laika, had been in space and that she had remained in the moon. Sometimes, when the sky was clear, I looked at the spots on the moon's smoked crystal, but I could see no trace of anything there, try as I might. Farther away there was a telescope even, that they had propped up on three legs; it was smeared in every color imaginable. Dad paid some money there too and I could look through it. I thought I was going to see the stars with the woods and flowers and little girls that were on them, but all I managed to see through the round glass was thousands of symmetrical pieces of colored glass that would fall in together to form various images, if you turned the pipe slowly. They resembled some really big glittering snow-flakes. Blubbering, I left that profuse, overdone fullness of light and color the like of which I had never seen before. We passed by a building that had on its top a panel with many thousands of shining bulbs which put the news across the sky in frantic movement, as the letters ran off to the left carried along by the yellow bulbs' repeatedly glittering then coming off again. Presents in hand, people followed for minutes on end that succession of words in movement. We returned home through the city dominated by the huge full moon. We had no telephone in the house then, we didn't even know such a thing existed. So our visits to the relatives were as rare as could be, for we had to drop by unannounced which my mother found embarrassing. In fact we only had a couple of relatives or so: mother's brother and sister plus my godmother. We would see uncle Lazăr very rarely, once a year maybe, as he'd had a divorce so he took to changing the women he was with, which filled my mother with anger, she having been so close with his wife. Even today, when he's over seventy, uncle Lazăr sticks to his habits, and this seems to keep his power untouched… We would hardly go to my own godmother's place either, as she was a slovenly woman. In her home, ridden with very young children - she'd have a new baby almost every new year, as the saying goes - there was a nastily stale smell always. But I would plead for the visits there (she lived in Ferentari, somewhere on a crooked, noisy street of the gypsy quarter, with a yellow, horrible church and a public toilet that reeked from a distance) because, it so happened, she had a TV set, a TEMP 6 with a very tiny screen, where I could watch the first episodes of Robin Hood
and children films such as The Tinder Box
and The Tin Soldier,
which I liked a lot. This enabled me to stand the snotty kiddies wearing swaddles made of parti-colored cloths and smeared booties on their feet, who were so keen on pulling my plaits and pestering me every way they could. So it would be at Aunt Aura's that we went most often. The voyages there and all that happened whenever we visited my aunt were a matter of strange adventure to me, the exploration of another world. The most important events in my life took place there, in that part of the Bucharest outskirts. It was there that the sole thing
for which I believe I was born at all happened, the thing I was chosen for: getting into the REM
. And it was there also, talking of this, that I first kissed a guy…Later on, after over ten years, I made love, too, to who cares what bloke, at the end of no matter which party, but it was not then that I turned into a woman, as I'd been one for quite long, from a psychological point of view. It would happen on a morning that my mom entered my room saying we were going to aunt Aura's. I jumped for joy, put on the visiting dress in no time, drew some white knee-high socks on and decked Zizi with a pale green velvet dress faintly streaked that made her look very well. She had pink veil panties and a white cambric undergarment - she was faultless. I'd dash out into the balcony in the chill of the yellow morning and I'd start looking at the trams and cars roaring below in all directions. Sometimes there'd be a horse-drawn truck coming up; it had beautiful panels on its sides painted in blue or green or decorated with flowers, sirens or stags. The horses would sometimes leave behind them yellowish globes of steaming dung. I could smell smoke and horse, a not at all repellent smell. What with mom's making herself ready to go and what with the breakfast, it would turn eleven before we could set out. We'd get out into the thick of the street's din and start at a slow pace to get to the Obor fair. I'd turn my head after each refreshment kiosk equipped with a syrup and soda installation, with cream-filled wafer spirals and big pretzels, "Buy - with salt and poppy-seed/ They will do you good indeed!". When I was a very little girl I used to throw myself down on the pavement if my mother wouldn't buy what I wanted and I'd start yelling like hell. Now and then I'd have an old woman coming, doing her best to make a fearful face at me and saying: 'Now, here! Who's this naughty girl? Let's pop her into the big bag of the hag' ; that made me start screaming even louder. The radio broadcast every day advertisements sung on several voices, that went as follows: "Sweet lozenges and good jellies/ Toffees, sugar coated dragées" or "Seep the lemmo-lemmo-lemonade!". Only after turning seven or eight did I eventually start controlling my tantrums. But I've always been gluttonous. I wonder I haven't turned into a whale. The Obor fair was a charming place. I can remember it in detail even today, and I can see it quite plainly, still, in the mind's eye. A simple crossroads, not very wide, with a typically Balkan trade air, such as you can hardly find anywhere else today. If you came from the Ştefan Cel Mare boulevard you found yourself engulfed by numberless painted boards that came in all forms, sizes and colors and were written on glass or on wood, with calligraphic handwriting or hand-painted with the most varied printed letters. Stove-fitters, blanket-makers, tailors, "Panes and Mirrors", clock-makers, undertakers (there was always a coffin propped against the door, with waves of satin lining inside it) a huge wooden key hanging perpendicular to the wall and bearing the inscription YALE, here and there a glass clock as big as the ones to be seen in the stations, but whose hands were painted on the face together with the name of the shop's owner. Somewhere to the left was a cheap eatery that always let off through its doors a bluish smoke smelling pungently of barbecued spicy meat, the mititei
. Gypsy drunkards lingered all around it, dressed according to the Hungarian fashion and trailing behind them the women in their richly twisted skirts; the place was also teeming with Romanian peasants who bore ropes of plaited garlic stems for sale over their shoulders and half-filled sacks giving off a hempy smell. Across the road was the " Little Red Riding Hood" toyshop; I used to dream about it even in the night, too. This was a wondrous place for me. Directly we arrived at Obor, I would drag my mother inside. We entered an oblong, narrow room, reeking of kerosene. The floor-boards were covered in a scarlet - tan paint and the light seeping in through the shop-windows was barely sufficient. It was only when you advanced deeply into that empty space that you came by the counter and the stacks of toys. I stared in wonderment at the dolls of all sizes, dressed in pieces of coarse cloth. Most of them were rag-dolls, with their heads only made of a kind of plaster that would chip easily, and the hair consisting of black, yellow or brown thread. But there were also rubber dolls representing some curly Negro women. There were little white horses with saddles made of red polished linen, as red as fire, yellow or brown bears, mechanical tin birds. On the counter were always five or six toys that kept hopping, bouncing, beating the drum, cars that had to be rubbed against a surface first in order to get them moving, rockets with jet-sparkles coming off their tails. Mother would buy me cheap games, such as those asking you to put together scenes from Snow White, Cinderella
or The Fairy Snow Queen
by fitting some cardboard pieces strange in shape. I would tire of them very soon, however, since I'd already learned how to put back together those rectangles even on the reverse, without considering the images, by simply taking into account the shapes of the lesser cardboard pieces. She'd also buy me little sewing cardboards, covered in colored drawings and punched holes. All you had to do was draw the needle and the thread through those holes, brown thread, blue, green, yellow or red. I would thus outline the shepherd child with his tiny sheep, the tractor, the boy and the girl holding hands, oh, so beautifully etched, and the butterfly. I would always leave "The Little Red Riding Hood" with tears in my eyes and on my cheeks. Further up the street, in the Mihai Bravu Avenue, was a big Tools and Fittings shop, a Ferometal,
where you could buy tin-sheet, nails, chains, but also vases and glasses with many-colored bird stickers on them. Somewhat farther away, passing a minute room which displayed in the light-flooded shop-window a fat woman in green who repaired the scales in the ladies' stockings, you encountered a sinister dungeon offering flax and hemp linen for sale and coarse jute carpets. On counters and stacks lay linen bales smelling strongly of naphthalene, vegetal fiber and jute. They gave a pungent jute smell. On a pier, hung a pier-glass that let me look at my reflection: against the thick penumbra, a frightened girl was looking back at me, with her face distorted by the crystal's wavy luster. Across the road, deeper in, towards the marketplace, the Market Hall controlled the view (today it is still unchanged). At the time it seemed to me monstrously big. It was always cold inside. While mother did her shopping from this or that one of the peasants that seemed strung behind the faience-tile stalls, I kept turning my head upwards to see the pale mosaic covering one wall and to watch the bustle on the top floor, where I knew they sold honey. To one side from the Hall's precinct ran the endless corridors of the butchers' quarter. I was fascinated by the pork halves, the beef hunks hanging from almost every hook, the butchers dressed in overalls heavily sprinkled with blood, who were so busy chopping lambs' heads with their cleavers so as to withdraw the milky brains, or who kept slicing at the thick muscles. Lambs, flayed and staring with bulging eyes which showed every little red vein in them lay rifted directly on the faience-covered stalls. To get out, we had to pass right by the immense tubs, smelling acridly of whey, from which ill-shaven men with sulking faces withdrew big hunks of Feta cheese. They were wet to the elbow, soaking in that milky pungent liquid. Everyone could take whichever way they chose to get over the Obor crossroads. There were no traffic lights, and the very scarce policemen who happened around the place were quite busy talking to the lame man in charge of the precision scales or the lottery ticket vendor. The place was alive with people smelling of leather, tobacco, cloth, fresh dung and barbecued spicy meat. Mother and I, in our visiting attire, would catch a tram that had a hard time advancing, ringing its bell all this while, between carts and Pobedas. Trams were made of wood, fitted with numerous exterior frames, with little windows and a single headlight right over the metal grating. Once the doors opened, folding aside their paneled modules generously greased with some kind of thick black jelly that I'd always smear all over me, one step descended to let you get on the tram. But it was so high that I'd always had to be lifted by my mother in order to reach and grab the shiny brass bar. We would get up at the front usually, as there were fewer people there, so I'd often find myself right behind the tram driver's seat - for on such trams the driver being not yet entitled to a glass and tin booth of his own as he is today, he was simply sitting side by side with the passengers, at the front of the tram, on a chair with the sponge lining showing. I loved to watch him twisting and turning at the nickel coated crank that ended in a big metal ball he would clank along the golden plate. On the plate, an inscription in German. In the carriages, the chairs were made of polished yellow wooden slates and there were oval handles that had been let down from the ceiling for the sake of those who could reach them. When the tram increased its speed and started shaking on the tracks, these handles were rhythmically hit against the ceiling swish-swash, swish-swash: this conveyed a sort of torpor to you, especially in the late afternoon. At the back of the last carriage, should you get on the tram there, you'd see a kind of manual brake, a nickel plated screwed crank. My mother held a handle in her hand, I swayed by her side, and in this way we had such a beautiful, mysterious city on display right in front of us that the fabulous image could hardly be contained within the apple of our eyes. In the morning, the city was enveloped by a dawn resembling chilling water. Morning glories were in fashion then so they'd open their blue crowns streaked with purple from behind almost every trellis-work. At noon, the tram was really crowded. A merry population of peasants with caps, peakless or peaked, and standard training suits with women wearing skirts made of gay patterned fabrics and scarves on their heads filled the carriage to the brim, laughed and made noise quarreling with the fare collector. Suddenly one quick-witted bloke or another would utter in a very low tone: "Any more fares? Show all your tickets, please!" and you felt transmogrified, whether or not you had the lawful ticket handy. When night was closing in, the tram was nearly empty, the fare collector slept between the stops with her head drooping over her little counter, my mother was dozing off too in her seat holding me in her lap, and I was watching the reddish clouds burning above the houses with black roofs, so irregular and zigzagging. Like this, still shaking and swaying, ducking out against drunkards or to avoid now the stench of garlic, now the smell of the gypsy-tent life, we'd get as far as the Bariera Vergului, with the Munca Cinema and especially with the verdigrised statue rising in the middle of the flowing fountain. It was the statue of a half naked woman holding a jug which let the water trickle through its mouth. A black, sad statue stained by green grass-like streaks. Verdigrised like twinning serpents/From the fountains of great cities
. We'd keep going for more stops, passing factories with huge stacks made of bricks, and with enormous, greasy machinery in their yards; we'd go past railway marshalling stations with melancholy scarlet carriages rusting in the snow; then past doughnut shops where millet beer was still sold too. Along the sides of the roads were aligned old mulberry trees, crooked, hollow-trunked but laden with white, worm-eaten or deep purple mulberries at the end of the summer; then, pod-bearing trees, in whose coffee-brown pods the seeds rattled and smelled of young vegetation, of sweet and of yellow alternating with lime-trees and acacias. Eventually, we'd get off a few stops later, at the Circus. There's no such place as the Circus to be found in Bucharest today. It was a round square, not very big, that seemed steeped in mist at all times owing to the debris of intermingling pale colors peeling off the surrounding houses' plaster. Pinkish-green, violet, this dust was whirling all over the square and would settle in faint traces on your shoulders and cheeks. Houses had concave façades and they were so deformed, so ridiculous, that they made you feel high in a kind of gruesome way. There were plaster lions guarding the entrance to some shop, a tobacconist's, say, holding their formidable paws propped against a ball. Vultures with wide-spread wings and gryphons with a knotty spine crowded the sky-lights. The roofs had oval bulbs made of tin just as the Russian churches. Antique columns, dilapidated some of them, complicated moldings and interplaited monograms framed the shabbiest shop-windows. All the fences had obscene graffiti scribbled on them in colored chalk. In the middle of the square, as if set on crushing it down, rose the statue of a 19th
century foot-soldier on a pedestal that was in itself much bigger than everything I had seen before. I had to throw my head back in order to get the full view of the colossal soldier holding his gun along the leg. The tallest buildings barely reached the height of the statue's pedestal. The brick-colored clouds wrapped his shoulders. It was entirely made of solid stone. While I would gape at him from the sidewalk, mother entered various tiny shops in order to buy things for her sister and my cousin Marcel. She usually bought cheap lavender sold in bottles in the shape of little cars, a few cardboard boxes full of Piticot chocolates or golden coins with chocolate inside. Sometimes she'd buy crisp almond candies made into dolls or roses and with coffee filling. There were some other, orange, candies filled with honey. Whenever she could find it (though it became less and less easy to find) she'd buy sugar candy in rough-edged pieces. She'd also give me, right there, a syrup: some icy-cold fragrant water tasting of raspberries. From the Circus we caught another tram and got off at the third stop. We'd arrived in the Dudeşti-Cioplea quarter. I remember how I tried to keep in step with mother who walked so quickly. Her dress gave off a faint smell of starch, and the rather strident lipstick she'd wear on such occasions (otherwise she'd never make up her face) one of the cheapest lipsticks on the market, smelled of poor-quality lavender. But I liked it since it recalled the fragrance of some rosy disc-candies tasting of flour and bearing the name of "ringlets". She'd keep Zizi in her crocodile-skin leather bag. After taking quite a number of turns into unknown by-roads, passing some yellow, flattened down school buildings with yellow window-sashes and brown roofs, after passing gas-cylinder filling stations that always displayed a big line of people waiting outside, after leaving behind pressurized soda bottle filling installations dominated by a huge blue wheel always on the move, we were finally there, in the street where Aunt Aura lived. It was a long, straight street, with wooden fences and low façades both to the left and to the right. If I went down this road in the summer, I always recognized it after the amazing number of paper kites that had got entangled in the telegraph wires stretching between the greasy wooden pillars. Many of the kites were made of the common violet-blue wrapping paper, but some were painted with water-colors or decorated with colored pencils, so they looked like some rum, harlequinesque blottings against the whitish sky. Look at the harlequins!
We had to foot the whole street before we reached the raw red-brick house that I knew so well, the last but one on the street, and in that direction, the last but one house in the city, too. Beyond yet another house crouching at the back of a garden, there stretched a field invaded by weeds that tied in to the Dudeşti head-village. An all embracing field. I found it so strange that a street should end in the void, instead of running into further streets.
by Mircea Cărtărescu (b. 1956)